Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft

We had the pleasure to listen to and converse with Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His role, which was specifically created for him, has the objective of putting together technology and diplomacy, which nowadays are always more connected.

It was a very interesting talk, which provided valuable insights into the current administration’s take on how to deal with international issues.
Ross talked about the importance of living in an open, transparent society and argued against the cold war-type “binary” foreign policy.
What was certainly confirmed from this talk is that dealing in international relations is very complicated and complicated is to analyze the impact of social media and new technologies to this field.

Twitter and activism

Most of the readings about Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft that he represents discussed the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian’s elections and in other protests (in Moldova, in Belarus, etc…).

There are few points I want to make.
The first point was already made by Clay Shirky and was reiterated in class by Alec Ross: technology is essentially neutral and the spread and advancement of new technologies is inevitable.
I feel that instead of discussing how much really was the impact of Twitter In Iran (something that is very hard to calculate, considering the importance of “indirect impact”), we should discuss how, going forward, we should use these technologies in the best possible way to promote just causes.

Many argue, correctly, that these new media can also be used for non-noble intentions, pointing out to the fact that for example Facebook was used by the Iranian government to track Iranian dissidents outside the country or that the same technologies that facilitate group formation and dissemination of information can be used by terrorist groups to organize or by totalitarian governments to spread the wrong messages.
But once one states this, he is at least acknowledging their potential as an organizing tool and at this point I still feel that their potential advantages are far superior than the potential disadvantages.

Another common claim is that these tools might be fostering a light-type of involvement in situations, such as protests against a totalitarian regime, that would require a very committed and involved group of people. Morozov writes: “this is one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice”. Basically his argument is that people might think that they are contributing to a protest by sharing a link or posting something on Twitter, but protests need their leaders to act and commit in a courageous way, in a way that goes far beyond that of the blogging (or micro-blogging) about it.
True, if that was the case, it would be a problem.

But I strongly doubt that people feel they are being heroes of any sort when they are sharing a link or writing their opinion of dissent. I’m no sociologist, but I think that part of the reason why someone shares something is to inform others (where information is controlled, it isn’t easy for people to access less biased information) and to reach out to those who think like them, in order for example to feel less politically-lonely.

I definitely agree that using Twitter or Facebook to express dissent is not enough and using these tools cannot be compared to the action of great dissident leaders.
But I am quite sure that Facebook and Twitter are not hindering the development of such heroic figures.
If anything, they are creating more chances for those who would have stayed silent.
And the more people speak up, even if most of them speak up without making too much efforts, maybe from the “comfort” of their computers, the better it is. If you feel that something is going badly in the way your country is administered and you notice that your friends or even some people you remotely know share your concerns, you’ll be more likely to “speak up” or write about it. While this doesn’t get a dictator to step down, it encourages thinking and discussion.
Furthermore, I don’t think that heroic dissidents need to be fully lonely to be called such. If they know they can count on people that support their ideas and they know they can communicate with these people, they can eventually lead and persuade them better to take real actions.

The quote that truly made me think during Alec Ross’ talk belongs to Joseph Stalin: “We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
Sometimes certain commentators, maybe because they have plenty of ideas themselves, forget that people having ideas is a fundamental element to achieve democracy and fight totalitarianism.
The indifference of most people is the best weapon for dictators!
Sharing and writing avoids indifference and it is part of the idea formation process.

To conclude, I don’t want to be naïve and categorically affirm that the more these tools are spread, the harder it will be for governments to use them at their advantage. I mean, I am sure television could have had a much better destiny, but it has become what it is now (pretty dull) and politicians have in often cases used it as a way to acquire power (any reference to Italian politics is purely casual…not).
But I do believe that TV and web are intrinsically different, because of the “participatory” nature of the web. To make sure that the difference lasts, we must definitely avoid the cyber-balkanization effect of which I talked in my previous post.
At least for now, we still definitely have the chance to make the web an extraordinary tool to promote democracy.


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